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Transitions throughout the day

All children and young people experience transitions throughout the day.  Teachers plan reassuring but flexible routines to help a child or young person to cope.  Children and young people with ADHD, anxiety, autism or sensory processing, in particular, often struggle with transition. Scaffolding is particularly crucial as it can make the difference between a good day and a bad one.

Create routines:  If a child or young person does not want to transition because they like consistency and routine and structure then start by building these into the transition process itself.

Understanding:  Make sure the child or young person understands what the instructions are and what is expected of them.  Some children or young people will need to be taught how to follow the routine.  This takes practice and time.  Ensure that the child or young person is giving the teacher their full attention before giving instructions.

Rearrange:  A child or young person’s attention span in primary school is likely to range from 5-7 minutes per activity, in the younger years. In the older years this increases to 10-12 minutes per activity. In secondary school this is likely to increase to about 15-20 minutes per activity.  Therefore thinking matters in lesson planning.  Consider dividing activities into chunks to keep the child or young person focused.

Preview and count down: Along with routines, previewing and countdowns are key. A visual timetable can be used showing the activities; where they are taking place and with whom.  Then before each transition, give a time-frame and explain what will happen along with countdowns (in 20 minutes, then 10, then 5 it will be time to finish). This allows the child or young person to emotionally get ready for the next transition or activity.

The use of music: Songs can be especially effective tools to help implement routines and ease transitions.  Songs are often used during ‘tidy-up time’ or as a challenge while changing for P.E. 

Visual cues/job planners/ timers: Some children and young people may benefit from visual cues.  Being able to point to a visual timetable and knowing the steps / what is happening can help some children and young people immensely.  Job planners make it clear what a child or young person can expect and what is coming up next.  Think about where to put the activities that are most challenging for the child or young person. For example, at the beginning of the day when they are less tired or just before a break.  The purpose of visual planner is to increase independence, engagement, and acquisition of new skills during classroom, play, transition, and play activities.  They help to provide clear expectations for academic, motor, social skills.  Visual timers or a visual countdown system show the child or young person how long they are working at the activity for.  Allow enough time to experience the activity before moving on to the next activity.

Verbal and physical cues:  Provide verbal and physical cues to let a child or young person know that a transition is approaching.  The use of signals can grab their attention, e.g. the teacher claps once and the child claps in return.  Some teachers use bells of various kinds and verbal cues such as ‘1, 2, 3, Eyes on Me’ or ‘Hocus Pocus, Time to focus’ are popular.

Use social stories:   Prepare the child or young person ahead of time with a social story as this can help reduce anxiety. Please also see the Carol Gray website

Get their attention:  For some children and young people it is especially important that the adult makes a connection with them. The teacher then knows when they have their attention and knows that the information is sinking in. This could mean eye contact, sitting next to the child, a hand on their shoulder, or asking them to repeat back what has been said.

Use rewards: Rewards can be an effective tool. These can be things like stickers, snacks, or a points system that leads to tangible rewards. Schools and parents alike can implement reward systems. Once the child or young person gets into the habit of seamlessly transitioning the reward system may be able to be phased out.

Praise:  Recognise when things are going well and be specific in the praise.  Research suggests that behaviours which adults notice and comment on are more likely to be repeated. Pay less attention if the child or young person is struggling as long as they are making an effort to make a transition.

Offer sensory breaks: See the Autism and Social Communication Team Sensory Checklist, in downloads, for ideas.

Use a transition object: For some children, having their special blanket, teddy, or soft toy with them can smooth transitions. This is especially true in the case of a child transitioning from one location to another such as from home to school. Bringing a small photo album or laminated picture of mum or dad can also be helpful. A transitional object can also be used when the teacher is not in class. The teacher leaves something of theirs with the child or young person to be collected when they return. This helps reduce anxiety in the child as they know that the teacher will return.

Maintain consistency:  As much as possible try to stick to the timetable and routines that have been laid out.

Offer movement breaks: (see the GoNoodle website for ideas to upregulating and calming activities):  Sometimes adding in physical activity during transition time can be an excellent way to increase movement and have a brain break without interrupting class time.  Ideas include:

  • Try walking at different speeds. Ask the child or young person to walk slowly, then increase the pace, then slow again constantly changing. The goal is to keep walking quietly without bumping into any peers when you change speeds.
  • Transition using different motor skills such as tip toes, walk sideways, or skip slowly.
  • Get creative and be silly. Transition walking with your hands on your head, then your hips, then your knees.

Last updated 6 October 2020

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